From the Book of Acts:
[Stephen the Deacon answered the High Priest in the council and said:] “Joseph sent and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five in all; so Jacob went down to Egypt. He himself died there as well as our ancestors, and their bodies were brought back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 7:14-16 (NRSV) – August 14, 2014)
Shechem was known as Sychar in Jesus’ time. Near that land that Abraham had bought for use as a tomb, just a short walk south from the traditional location of Joseph’s tomb, is a well that belonged to Jacob. At that well, Jesus stopped to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink; part of the story of that meeting and Jesus’ conversation with the woman (the longest of all the conversations recorded in the Gospels) is today’s Gospel text (John 4:27-42).
Near Sychar the Romans built the Greek-named city of Flavia Neapolis which grew large and encompassed the ancient Jewish and Samaritan city. As the predominant local language changed to Arabic, the Greek name was retained but shortened and Arabicized, and now the modern city of Nablus is among the largest Arab cities in the Holy Land.
Over the site of Jacob’s Well stands the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Photini. The name Photini is given by Orthodox tradition to the Samaritan woman; it means “light bringer” in recognition of her bringing the light of Christ to the people of the city. The first church dedicated to her at the site was built in 311 AD.
There are two tombs at St. Photini Church. One inside houses the remains of Archimandrite Philoumenos, a priest who almost single-handedly restored the ancient church to its present modern condition. In 1979 a group of radical Zionists from a nearby Israeli settlement claimed Jacob’s Well, which is in a chapel inside the crypt of the church, as a Jewish holy place and demanded that crosses and icons be removed. A week later, on November 29, Fr. Philoumenos was hacked to death with an ax in the crypt and the church was desecrated. Although it is widely believed that the settlers were responsible, no one was ever convicted of the priest’s murder. Fr. Philoumenos was ranked among the Saints of the Church of Jerusalem on August 30, 2008, and his feast day set on November 29, the anniversary of his martyrdom.
The second tomb is that of Fr. Justinus, the priest who took over the church from St. Philoumenos and continued his work of restoration. An accomplished artist, Fr. Justinus wrote all of the icons which now decorate the nave, sanctuary, and crypt, including an icon of the martyrdom of St. Philoumenos. Fr. Justinus’s tomb is empty because he is still alive. He built his tomb himself and it is placed just outside the front door of the church; he walks past it everyday coming from his residence in the neighboring monastery to the church. It is a daily reminder of his (and our) mortality and of the dangers he (and many) face in the on-going violence or threat of violence that characterizes the Holy Land today.
If we were to read further in Acts (and we will tomorrow and the day after) we would read of the martyrdom of Stephen. His address to the Sanhedrin (perhaps one would best characterize it as a polemical sermon) so enraged his hearers that “they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:58) which resulted in his death. We are told that “devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him” (8:2) but we are not told where his burial place may have been, though surely it is in or near Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, his sermon about Jesus at Jacob’s Well in Shechem-Sychar-Nablus, the well’s location near Joseph’s Tomb and its intimate connection to the martyrdom of St. Philoumenos, and the eventual outcome of Stephen’s address are stark reminders that the Good News of God (whether that be the Covenant of the Old Testament or the Gospel of the New) is not the promise of an easy life. One would not be surprised to hear the Almighty singing the lyrics of that old country song:
I beg your pardon; I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime.
When you take you gotta give so live and let live and let go.
I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.
In fact, Jesus did pretty much that when he disabused his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mat. 10:34)
The People of God are called to be risk-takers and, sometimes, to risk even death. Christians most surely must know that; we have only the example of our Lord to prove it. But it is also true of all the children of Abraham, not only Christians but also Jews and Muslims. What is sad is that Abraham’s descendants cannot live peaceably among themselves, that it is often our Abrahamic “siblings” from whom we face the greatest danger (sometimes even more so from our brothers and sisters within the same faith group). I believe that this breaks God’s heart!
As he died, Stephen the Deacon “knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:60) So should we all pray for those who persecute us, and let us pray especially for all who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham, that there may be peace among Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
(Note: The icon of the martyrdom of St. Philoumenos may be photographed by pilgrims and tourists, and those photographs are to be found widely posted on the internet, the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority will not permit the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem nor the parish church or monastery to reproduce the icon. It is considered politically inflammatory and is therefore censored.)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.