17 September 2015

There was more than one Good Samaritan,
but who are today’s Good Samaritans?

The Good Samaritan … the East Window in Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I have been reminded on two occasions in the past 10 days of the role of Samaritans in the Gospels.

After the ordinations in Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, last Sunday afternoon [13 Septmber 2015], I spent some time looking at the East Window behind the High Altar. This is the oldest window in the cathedral and depicts the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-37). This window came from the old Saint Anne’s Church to which it was given in memory of Sir William Johnston, who was Mayor of Belfast in 1849.

The window was bowed to fit the curved chancel wall of the old church. It depicts two scenes: in the lower panel, the Good Samaritan finds the victim of the attack – a broken sword in the bottom right corner suggests the fury of the resistance; in the upper panel, the Samaritan delivers the victim to the innkeeper to be looked after. Scrolls carry quotations from the New Testament story.

This window is immensely detailed and every small area of it deserves close examination. In addition, two side panels depict the Priest and the Levite who would not help the robbed and injured man.

The shocking part of this story is not that the man was attacked on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem – that was a regular and oft-expected hazard on that road.

Nor is it that the Priest and the Levite passed by, for they would have feared that the body on the side of the road was a ruse to lure them into the attack, as well as fearing that contact with a dead body would have made them ritually unclean and unable to fulfil their liturgical obligations in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Perhaps the shocking part of the story is not so much that a Samaritan came to rescue, that he bound up the man’s wounds, or that he brought him to an inn and paid for his overnight accommodation.

I find the most challenging part of the story the fact the Samaritan was willing to return and pay again and again for this man to be cared for. Being a good neighbour is not simply about caring for people, but is about putting our hands deep into our pockets, and being generous to those in need in a way that it costs us.

An icon in Arkadi of Christ with the Samaritan Woman at the Well (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Five days earlier [8 September], I was in Arkadi Monastery, in the mountains above Rethymnon, where I admired an icon I had not seen there before of the Samaritan woman at the Well (John 4: 5-42).

Orthodox tradition names this woman as Saint Photini, who was martyred at the behest of the Emperor Nero. Christ asks her for water, and she accepts Christ as the “living water.” It is an image that is laden with sacramental meaning and significance. It comes shortly after the story of the wedding at Cana, where water is transformed into wine (John 2: 1-11), the first of the signs. Christ who is the living water is the true vine, and is met in bread and wine.

In bringing the people of her town to meet Christ she invites them to the banquet and becomes the first missionary, the first person to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

The third appearance of a faithful Samaritan in the Gospel is the story of the Samaritan who is the only one of the ten lepers to return to Christ and to give thanks for his healing (Luke 17: 11-19).

It has always struck me as miraculous that a Samaritan should obey Christ’s command to go and show himself to the priests (verse 14). Healed or not, the priests would have still declared him unclean and refused to admit him to a place in polite Jewish society, not because he was a healed leper but because he was an incurable Samaritan.

None of the three Samaritan stories in the Gospels has a satisfying ending.

The lawyer cannot bring himself to name the good neighbour as a Samaritan, but simply refers to him as the “one who showed him mercy” (verse 37), without acknowledging his ethnicity or religion.

Did the Good Samaritan ever return to honour his commitment to return to the bill? Was the victim grateful for his help, or was he shocked and did he feel defiled by the revelation that a Samaritan had touched him?

Doug Adams, in his book The Prostitute in the Family: Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible, imagines a number of other optional endings. The innkeeper continues to care for the victim, sends bills to the Samaritan, but the bills come back marked “addressee unknown.” Or the victim recovers, and is billed by the innkeeper in an an early example of double billing. Or the victim recovers, and sues the Samaritan for his chronic neck injuries.

If the Samaritan woman at the well was such a successful missionary, why did Philip need to preach the Gospel in Samaria? When the Apostles in Jerusalem hear about this, they send Peter and John to pray for and lay hands on the baptised believers, who then receive the Holy Spirit. They then return to Jerusalem, preaching the Gospel “in many villages of the Samaritans” (see Acts 8: 1–25).

If the Samaritan leper’s faith is so great, why does he remain anonymous, and why does he not feature in the story of the Apostolic Church?

If these three Samaritans, the Good Samaritan, the woman at the well in Sychar, and the healed and faithful leper, are as important as we imagine, why are they not mentioned in Saint Mark’s Gospel?

These questions may be humorous, but perhaps they are idle questions too. Perhaps it might be interesting to ask who are our Samaritans today. I am not referring to the tiny minority in Israel and Palestine described in detail in Gerard Russell's new book, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, which I began reading in Crete last week. But who are Samaritans as far as the Church today is concerned?

The people we marginalise because of their ethnic or religious background? The people we regard as unclean despite their great faith? The people who have socially awkward illnesses and who can never escape the stigma no matter how much healing they receive? The people who live in the wrong town or village. The people, like the woman at the well, who enter marriages or civil unions that we would prefer never to recognise?

In the present refugee crisis I have to ask too about the people who are willing to foot the bill for those who are left by the side of the road while we are too busy with our own ways of life, unwilling to look at what is happening on our own frontiers?

Concern about the present Syrian refugee crisis must be expressed not only in words of sympathy but also find expression in being willing to dig deep deep in our pockets and be willing to pay the bill.

Yet these three Samaritans remain examples of Christians who believe, who live a sacramental life, who put their faith into action through love and service, and who bring others to new life in Christ.