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New Perspectives on St. Photina: The Samaritan Woman at the Well
Really? She has a name, and she's a saint?
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well appears only in the Gospel of John, yet it’s one of the most well-known narratives in all the Gospels. It’s the longest conversation Jesus is recorded as having with anyone, and it’s also the longest story in the New Testament that features a woman as the protagonist. Both of these facts are important, and tell us something amazing about the nature of the Samaritan woman and the importance of her story.
Nothing in Sacred Scripture is random or written by happenstance.
It’s also crucial to note that St. John gives the woman at the well just as much speaking time as Jesus. Her voice is as prominent as our Savior’s. Why would this be so, and what does this fact reveal to us?
In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the woman at the well has been not only named, but she’s been named a saint—St. Photina (also spelled Photine and Photini), meaning “enlightened one.” The story of her life after meeting Christ, including her martyrdom, seems to have come to full blossom around the 4th century A.D.
The sad thing about the story of Photina is that most people assume she was a fallen woman. She had five husbands, so obviously she was a bit promiscuous, or at best unlucky in love. Regardless, it was her fault that she’d had so many relationships. She needed healing from her sexual wounds.
At least so the current thought seems to go.
It’s true that she likely did need healing—but not in the way we traditionally assume. There’s no way, in the culture in which she lived, that Photina had been divorced five times.
She wasn’t fickle, or flagrant, or promiscuous.
Most likely, Photina was heartbroken due to the death of her spouses, or their betrayals. Or both.
Even one divorce was a scandal. Under Mosaic law a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him, but a woman couldn’t do the same.
If a man divorced his wife, she would be shunned for life. In other words, it’s highly unlikely that any other man would want to marry a divorced and discarded woman.
Therefore, Photina most likely hadn’t been divorced five times, but widowed, or perhaps abandoned. She wasn’t a loose woman who kept wandering from man to man. She was a heartbroken woman, perhaps even a battered and betrayed woman.
And she felt shame. Deep, profound, heart-wrenching shame.
We can infer this because she drew water from the well at noon. It was too hot at that time of day to perform outside chores, so women usually drew water from their local well in the morning, when the sun was cooler.
Yet St. Photina sought the water at the well during the hottest hour, the hour of deepest struggles.
Photina made sure to arrive at the well when she knew she’d be invisible. No one would see her, no one would question her—because no one else would be around.
We all feel shame at some point in our lives. This is particularly true if we’re victims of betrayal trauma, domestic abuse, or any other type of interpersonal manipulation. We tend to carry the shame of those who have wounded us.
Even though it’s not ours to bear, we still do. This yoke is heavy. The burden is far from light.
Jesus never accused the woman at the well to be a horrible sinner. He never asked her to repent, as He did with others before He healed them. This tells us something important:
Photina likely wasn’t an immoral sinner, but a victim of trauma.
In this twist of the traditional story, we can well imagine that Jesus completely understood what Photina had endured. Again and again, she’d had to brace herself through so much abuse. Yet there was Jesus, appearing before her, eager to give her the Living Water—His very Self.
What’s truly amazing—and what has always struck me about this story—is Phontina’s reaction to Jesus’ call inside her heart. When Phontina abandoned her water jug so she could run back to her village square—people she’d previously avoided out of shame—she set aside physical water, which was so crucial for survival in her day. Instead, she abandoned her water jug in order to run outside her comfort zone, to share the Messiah with others.
Despite her wounding, regardless of her betrayals and traumas, she abandoned physical life-giving water in favor of true life-giving Water. She was able to set aside her betrayal trauma and fear of society in order to share the love and healing protection of the LORD.
Even more astoundingly, the people of her village actually listened to her evangelistic words about Jesus the Christ. Photina was cursed in the village—like Sarah in the book of Tobit, likely it was feared she was plagued by an evil spirit, doomed to loss in her relationships. Normally the townspeople wouldn’t want to sully themselves by coming near her. Yet now, they saw the light in her face and the Spirit-filled excitement in her gestures, which caused them to listen her words about the amazing new Prophet who knew more about her inner self than even she did.
“Many Samaritans from that city believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His words” (John 4:39-41).
Yet what happened to Photina after the two days were up and Jesus left Samaria? We’ll never know, at least not while on this earth, but Eastern Orthodox tradition does weave delicious stories to fill in the blanks. I realize that in our modern, “rational” culture, “filling in the blanks” is often seen as a meaningless endeavor, a mere fancy of imagination. However, we need to understand that in ancient cultures, stories were the stuff of life. Historical or rational details didn’t matter; it was the essence, the substance, the meaning and the theological enlightenment that truly mattered.
That’s why Jesus told so many parables.
According to ancient tradition, Photina went on to become not only an effective and energetic evangelist, but a martyr. She was baptized by the Apostles, and that’s when she was given her new Christian name, meaning “enlightened one.” After her baptism, filled with zeal and the sheer love of Christ, she traveled around preaching to others about the Living Water. It’s said that she went to Carthage and then to Rome, to preach the Good News even before St. Paul reached the city.
But, as we know from history, Rome wasn’t kind to the new followers of Christ. The Emperor Nero reigned from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D., and was a notorious tyrant toward Christians. He blamed and targeted them for anything he could, including a devastating fire that was said to have been started by Nero himself in 64 A.D.
It was at the hands of Nero, refusing to recant her love of Christ her true Bridegroom, that Photina—as well as her sons—met a gruesome fate. She was imprisoned and, after refusing to betray and deny Christ even through brutal torture, she was ironically thrown into a dry well.
Yet she’d already found the Living Water. What more did she need?
The story of St. Photina shows us the power of forgiveness—especially forgiveness of self—and the immense mercy of Christ. He comes to all, He pours Himself out to all, particularly those most in need. Even the shunned, the overlooked, the neglected can find power and authority when preaching the word of Christ, sharing His extreme sacrificial love to all the world. Each and every one of us can do all things in Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). We’re reminded that Christ choses the little, the humble, the brokenhearted; He binds up their wounds (Ps. 147:3) and uses them for His ultimate glory and sanctification. No one is ever too little, shunned, or shamed for His love. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God” (Matt 5:3).
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