Sunday, 17 May 2020

Sermon for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman 17/5/20

John 4:5-42

Today’s Gospel reading begins: “Jesus came into a city of Samaria”.

Samaria had originally been a Jewish region, but the Old Testament tells us that, on account of their lack of faith, God allowed the king of Assyria, Shelmaneser, to attack Samaria and deport its inhabitants to Assyria. He then brought Assyrians from Babylon and other places and settled them in Samaria in order to replace the Jewish population. Initially, these new settlers were pagans, but they eventually accepted the worship of the one God and the Law of Moses. By the time of Jesus, the Samarians claimed to be the true Jews, the true descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However, they rejected all of the other Old Testament prophets, and also disagreed with the Jews on the true location of the Temple, choosing to worship at a different mountain. 

So, in the eyes of the Jews, the Samaritans were seen not just as Gentiles, but as usurpers of Jewish land, usurpers of Jewish identity and history, co-conspirators with the enemies of God’s people. They were not just ignorant of the Truth, but perverters of the Truth. This is why Jews had such animosity toward the Samaritans, and why they would normally have no dealings with them. And so the opening phrase, “Jesus came into a city of Samaria” describes a bold and unexpected act.

Just as the Lord came down from heaven, to save the fallen race of man on earth, our Lord leaving the land of the Jews and going into the land of Samaria shows God’s desire to reach out to those who have gone astray and bring them back to himself. At midday, the sixth hour, the hottest part of the day, when most people would avoid any heavy work, a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her, “Give me to drink”. The Bible doesn’t give us a reason, but from the story we learn that this woman was previously five times married, and was now living with a man outside marriage, and so perhaps the reason she was forced to come to the well at such an odd time of day was because she was something of an outcast in that city; she was considered a sinner, and she wanted to avoid other people.

The Lord not only does not walk away from her, shun her or ignore her, but he engages this sinful woman from an unclean people in conversation, and he asks her, “Give me to drink”. 

As we pray every morning during the six psalms of Matins: 
O God, my God, unto Thee I rise early at dawn. My soul hath thirsted for Thee

Ὁ Θεός ὁ Θεός μου, πρὸς σὲ ὀρθρίζω, ἐδίψησέ σε ἡ ψυχή μου.

Just as the human soul has a natural thirst for God on account of it being created in the image of God, the Lord in His infinite love for mankind also longs for the return of the prodigal son and the lost sheep, He thirsts for the person who has gone astray. This is why he says to the Samaritan woman, “Give me to drink”. In other words, it is as if he is saying to her, “come back to me, I long for your return.” 

And these words of the Lord are addressed to each and every human being. Every moment of our life, even the most mundane everyday tasks like fetching water, can become a life-changing encounter with the Lord. As He says elsewhere in Scripture, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). The Lord is constantly seeking us, constantly knocking at the door to our heart, ready to give us His grace, and to quench our thirst with the living water of the Holy Spirit. The only thing He needs from us is a good disposition, a willingness to open the door. And this is what He finds in the Samaritan woman.

When the Lord says, “Whosoever drinks the water I shall give him in no wise shall ever thirst”, she might not understand what he means, but she responds positively: “Lord, give me this water.”

When the Lord says, “Go, call your husband, and come here”, she responds with honesty: “I have no husband.”

When the Lord with great gentleness reveals to her that he is aware of her sin, she does not become defensive, but she responds with humility, and by that humility she begins to perceive who it is she is speaking to: “Lord, I perceive that you are a prophet”.

At each exchange, the woman becomes more and more open and receptive, allowing Christ to reveal to her higher and higher truths, until she finally understands that the person standing in front of her is the Messiah.

At the end of the conversation, the Gospel says “the woman left her waterpot” and went into the city to tell everyone of what she had experienced. She left the waterpot. She was no longer thirsty, just as the Lord had promised. A short while before, she was a sinner coming to the well at midday to avoid the crowds, and now she was running into the city to speak to every person she possibly could about the One who had changed her life. Many of the Samaritans believed because of her word, and the Holy Tradition tells us that she went on to become a great missionary saint, St Photeini, the Enlightened one, who devoted her life to telling the world about her encounter. 

At the mid-point of the Feast, O Saviour, water my thirsty soul with streams of true devotion; for Thou didst cry out to all: Any who thirst, let them come to me, and let them drink! O Source of life, Christ our God, glory to Thee!
(Apolytikion of Mid-Pentecost)

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

"Fasting food" is an oxymoron

As we approach Great Lent, the Church year’s longest and strictest period of fasting, we often meet two responses: pride and despondency. While by no means a cure for these two spiritual ailments, I do think a better knowledge of what fasting actually entails is a big help in countering both of these.

Fasting-related pride can either be personal (“I fast during Lent, they do not”) or collective (“The heretics have abandoned fasting, but we Orthodox have kept the way of the Fathers!”). Every Lent, the orthonet abounds with memes expressing the latter sentiment in particular.

In either case, the truth is that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians today do not actually fast. They may abstain from meat, dairy, eggs, fish, wine and even oil, but they do not fast in the strict sense of the word. Fasting means complete abstinence from food and drink, usually until the evening. This is what the Church prescribes for weekdays of Great Lent, and for nearly all Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year: no food until evening. The vegan meal eaten after Vespers marks the end of fasting on that day — the term “fasting food” is an oxymoron. This is why the Presanctified Liturgy is celebrated with Vespers during weekdays of Great Lent, so that the faithful would not break their fast early by receiving Communion and antidoron at a morning service. When the Fathers end a long Lenten sermon or catechetical talk by apologising for wearing out their listeners who are already tired from fasting, they are not apologising to people inconvenienced by veggie burgers and soy substitutes, but to people listening on an empty stomach.

Don’t get me wrong, each person should fast in accordance with their own strength and circumstances, and with the guidance of their spiritual father. I am not calling on anyone to do any more or less than what they are currently doing. But before we boast in our almond milk lattes, let us recognise just how modest our Lenten effort actually is. Let us not take pride in abstaining from meat when our secular neighbour does not, but let us be humbled by how far our ‘fasting’ falls short of what is envisaged by the canons we claim to follow.

Similarly, many people who follow the standard abstinence from meat and dairy, but who have no experience of actual fasting, often complain that they don’t see the point. They feel no different, and they find the idea of not putting milk in their coffee or not eating cheese on certain days of the year arbitrary and irrelevant to their spiritual lives. Now, in our days of abundant choice and instant gratification, even this is a huge sacrifice and struggle for many, and if combined with prayer and a humble disposition, there is no reason why this modest exercise in self-control shouldn’t bring abundant spiritual fruit. I can understand, though, where those who complain are coming from.

The first thing is the way fasting is disconnected from charity. In the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions (XXI), the rules regulating fasting (no food until the 9th hour of the day) are accompanied by a rule that all the surplus of fasting be devoted to God. In other words, all the food and money saved by limiting oneself to a single, simple meal in the evening, should go to the poor. Every act of self-deprivation should be accompanied by an equal and opposite act of charity. Not only does this simple principle prevent fasting being an inward-looking act (which is what the four Sundays of the Triodion introducing us to Lent warn against), but it also allows the faster to see an immediate, positive result.

Even if the way most of us fast during Lent will involve more modest savings than that envisaged by the canons, consciously applying this principle is still possible and still helpful. If you have a habit of getting a cup of coffee from Starbucks every morning, give that up during lent, and make sure the daily saving of £2.50 goes to someone who needs it.

The same goes for time saved during fasting. The hour you save by not watching your favourite show on Netflix should be used to benefit another person in need of practical help or personal interaction, whether it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting an elderly person struggling with loneliness.

A second reason people might not feel their fasting does much (if it only involves a change in diet) is because they don’t experience the hunger, the fatigue, and the very concrete feelings these rouse in us, not only of sympathy for the poor who experience these things involuntarily, but of our own weakness and absolute dependence on God, the Provider of all things. Simply put, ‘proper fasting’ has effects on our prayer and on our general mood and outlook that veganism just doesn’t. While this kind of fasting may be beyond the reach of many — it should certainly not be undertaken without discernment and the advice of one’s spiritual father — being aware that this is what fasting is, that this is what the saints and fathers speak of when they refer to fasting, will allow people to put what they read into perspective, and not be disappointed and discouraged when switching to veggie burgers doesn’t bring about the results described in spiritual literature.

And simply being aware of where we are in relation to where we should be is helpful in itself. In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John describes how many who had not been granted the gift of tears of repentance would weep on account of their lack of tears, thus reaching the same end through other means.

Similarly, if we are not able to fast according to the canons (which is, in any case, but a means to an end, not an end in itself), let the modesty of our effort become a source of the same humility and openness that fasting is intended to give us. Let us, through acknowledging what we are not doing rather than boasting in what we are doing, win the grace of God through another way.

May God grant us all a fruitful Lent, and let our sacrifices — however great or small they may be — manifest themselves in meaningful, outward-looking acts of love.